Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Curse of Pat Brown? of Richard Nixon?

Reading Kevin Drum today about how Californians hate all their pols got me thinking about just how pathetic their pols have been -- not in the Senate, where I think both of California's Senators are perfectly good pols, or in the House, where they've produced several outstanding Members, but at the statewide level.  Or, more specifically, their gubernatorial candidates.  OK, granted, this is mostly subjective, but, that's not going to stop me.  I lived in CA through three elections for governor, well, as I said, I think that Diane Feinstein is a pretty good politician.  Mostly, though, it's been a lot of hacks and nonentities.  That includes winners (Gray Davis, George Deukmejian), losers (Bill Simon, Phil Angelides) and Browns (Jerry, Kathleen, Jerry again).  I can't say I know anything about Houston I. Flournoy, even whether he was a good political scientist, but I think I'm on fairly safe ground in saying that as a pol, he wasn't exactly a heavyweight.  Tom Bradley, maybe?  I suppose I'd think differently about him (and some of the others) had he won, but then again that can cut both ways, can't it?

I don't know...as I said, it's subjective, but I don't see any Bill Clintons there, or Mario Cuomos, or Tommy Thompsons, or Jeb Bushes.  All of whom have various weaknesses, but all of whom have or had excellent reputations as pols, whatever one thinks of their ideology.  (One of the Iron Laws of Politics, by the way, applies here: all governors with national reputation are thought to be overrated by their actual constituents, who think that if the rest of the nation only knew what we know...).

Now, Pat Brown, everyone agrees, was first-rate.  I'll skip over Ronald Reagan -- he certainly wasn't a nonentity, but if you think he was a good pol, start the string after him; if not, start it after Pat Brown.  At any rate, it's been at least a very long time since California had a governor who was well-regarded, and most of the losing candidates didn't really get anyone very excited, either.

I have no idea why California doesn't produce good governors.  Expensive campaigns?  Screwed up political system (the initiatives, the supermajority-requiring budget, the other initiative-imposed constraints)?  Something about the way the parties are organized?  I suppose they haven't had any disasters on the scale of Rod Blagojevich or Evan Mecham...hmmm, that's a good question: how many states have had a governor either resign in disgrace, wind up in jail, or both over the last, say, fifty years?  Just off the top of my head, we have IL, AZ, NJ, NY, OH, LA, all in the last few years.*  Can anyone top Arizona, with two?  I'm sure I'm forgetting some; feel free to leave them in comments.

No, that's not California's style; the poster boy California governor since Reagan is, in my opinion, clearly Gray Davis.  Dull, never had any enthusiastic support to begin with, reelected anyway because the opposition was even weaker, and then disposed of and forgotten as soon as people were able to do so.

*Want to be clear about one of these, New Jersey: that Jim McGreevey was gay was no disgrace, but stepping down because of an affair does constitute "resigning in disgrace."


  1. Over the past fifty years? Sure. Go to Rod Blagojevich's Wikipedia page and just keep clicking the name at "Preceded by" in the Governor block until you get to Otto Kerner, Jr., reading just the blurb above the Contents for each of them. If a scandal isn't mentioned there, assume it doesn't exist. By my count, that's four of the last eight over about fifty years.

  2. IL beats AZ easy, with 4 governors in jail (counting Blago) alone out of their last 8 govs.

    That's right: a 50% conviction rate.

    I wonder if the overly-plural executive is partly to blame? Politicians that, in other states, would have been pushed into the private sector or into being bad congresspeople get an opportunity to run for a job to keep them warm while they wait out the opportunity to run for the big show.

    Take Gavin Newsom (please). Without the plural executive, he would have been facing Jerr-Bear today, or he would have had to find something else to do. Instead, he gets a free pass to run for LG, and will win or lose depending on how well Dems do in general in November. Poizner? Sure, he's going to lose to Whitman, but he wouldn't even be in that race if we didn't elect him insurance commissioner 4 years ago simply because his opponent was Cruz Bustamante, who, himself, was a bad pol as LG. The once-and-future governor Jerry Brown also would have likely faded into obscurity without the AG seat to keep warm these last few years.

    I wonder if I'm actually on to something, or if I'm just blowing smoke?

  3. You forgot Rowland in CT and Siegelman in Alabama. And that's just off the top of my head. California is looking better and better.

  4. I'm trying to figure out exactly what Mr. Jarvis means by an "overly-plural" executive. It's true that Cali is wanting for some truly outstanding, charismatic politicians. There's been a lot written about the fatally dysfunctional government, all of it true, especially with regard to the initiative process -- which in my opinion is the root of all California political evils.

    But let's not discount the terribly destructive consequences of term limits, a sacred cow in California politics much like Prop 13. Here you have a parade of people limited to 4 years in the seat, so the minute they take office they are already eyeing their next job. Four years is not long enough to develop a staff, learn how to write good legislation, form alliances, negotiate in good faith, all those essential skills that good legislators develop over the years in office.

    And too, there is virtually no constituent service obligation for these elected officials. These politicians don't serve their constituents and they don't HAVE TO serve their constituents because they'll be gone in a short enough time. They have to serve their loyal contributors, though, to assure election to their NEXT elected office. And you can see how irrelevant the small citizen contribution can be in this scheme -- that contributing citizen won't be a constituent in the next office, will he? But the big money -- that's what really counts. See how that works?

    There is no accountability for passing bad legislation, or failing to pass good legislation: they've all been replaced before the full impact of their "crime" is felt, e.g., the deregulation of energy.

    It's a revolving door that has served to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and it's an abdication of the voters' responsibility to throw out the rascals. The voters themselves don't pay attention because they don't have to pay attention. So there is no obligation and no incentive to become a GOOD politician. If you look at the careers of many of these pols (federal officeholders excepted) they have probably held two or five or ten different elected positions before they get to their comfortably safe federal office position.

    So there's that.

  5. James,
    What I meant by the "overly-plural" executive is that we elect people to all kinds of jobs in the executive branch that really shouldn't be elected. In CA, the LG essentially does nothing, but we still have one. We elect both a controller AND a treasurer for reasons that I think escape everyone, and we elect an insurance commissioner (thanks again to those wonderful props). We elect a secretary of state, whose office does some real fine work, but I'm really unsure if the office-holders have been instrumental in that or not. Now, Attorney General is a real job with real politics, and I'm less willing to lump it in with the others. But your Poizners, your Fongs, your Bustamantes, your Quackenbushes, your Davis', your Angelides', etc., have all been able to hang around in these jobs, biding their time for a later try at a real prize like Gov or Senator. Sometimes they win those offices, if the election gods favor them, but I wouldn't chalk it up to any skills they have as pols. In a system with fewer places to wait, I wonder if elections would have served the purpose of weeding them out sooner.

  6. @Matt:

    Ah. I see. Yes, very good points. Well, the SoS I think is a good elected office -- most states have them, I think, and I believe it's a legit elected office most notably charged with enforcing election law, yes? I like my SoS to be accountable to the electorate instead of appointed by the Governor, just as I like the AG to be an elected office. I don't argue about the other offices, however.

    Quackenbush -- wasn't he a one-off Insurance Commissioner resigning in disgrace for corruption and packing off to Hawaii? Or is he making a comeback while I haven't been paying attention?

    I don't argue your political placeholder points, but I contend that the root of the evil is not so much an "overly-plural" executive, but the term limit initiative back in the early 1990s. But that's just a difference of focus, probably.


  7. Try West Virginia (where I have to admit, things have gotten better), which at one time had three ex-govs in jail for taking bribes (as I recall, all to award highway construction contracts). The string was broken when the voters elected someone almost guaranteed not to take a bribe (John David Rockefeller IV; I say nothing about whether he was a good governor, or has been a good senator--I've been out of the state since 1974).

  8. Surprised you don't discuss Arnold in this post.


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